Two Santa Monica Mountains nature groups said this week that a hillside developer may be backing out of an agreement to give them a $200,000 donation.
The Tree People and the William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom were to receive $100,000 apiece after construction was started on the third, final phase of the 80-unit Beverly Park Estates subdivision north of Beverly Hills.
Elliott Gottfurcht, developer of the 355-acre project, agreed to make the donations in a 1982 pact with several homeowner organizations in return for their agreeing not to file a lawsuit to stop the development.
But Gottfurcht told the groups Monday that the donations may not be required if he decides to sell undeveloped portions of the property without starting either of the last two phases of the project.
Gottfurcht has nearly completed construction of 16 expensive homes in the gated community, located south of Mulholland Drive between San Ysidro Drive and Coldwater Canyon Boulevard. Entertainer Kenny Rogers owns one of the homes.
Andy Lipkis, executive director of the Tree People, which conducts an assortment of nature programs from its headquarters at Mulholland and Coldwater Canyon, accused Gottfurcht of trying to take advantage of a loophole in the agreement.
"The agreement did tie in payments with the beginning of the third phase of construction," Lipkis said. "But that was only a timetable for payments, not a condition for the payments.
"There never was any question that the payment was required. The point at the time of the agreement was that unless the developer agreed to make the donations, the homeowner groups would have continued to oppose his development."
Sooky Goldman, president of the board of the William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom, which conducts nature tours in the Santa Monica Mountains, echoed Lipkis.
"He made a commitment to us," Goldman said. "He got everything he wanted in the agreement, now it is time for him to abide by his part of the bargain. I deal with people in good faith and hope that others, particularly in his business, will do the same."
Gottfurcht said that he has honored every agreement he has entered into and that he intends to honor this one. "I will seek the advice of my attorney on the agreement," Gottfurcht said in an interview. "If he says I have to pay, I will pay."
He said there is only a "50-50 chance" that he will sell any part of the undeveloped portion of the property. He said that two offers have been made to acquire two large parcels, about 75 acres each, for development of a polo field and a horse ranch.
"We have not made a decision to sell," Gottfurcht said. "We will make that decision within six months. Selling is only one of our options. We could decide to go ahead with developing the rest of the property, or we could decide to leave the land undeveloped for our grandchildren."
Stephen Trattner, a homeowner who was a party to the agreement, said that Gottfurcht, in questioning the necessities of the donations, has raised the issue of the effectiveness of agreements between homeowners and developers.
"We bargain in good faith; they don't," Trattner said.
He said that the agreement ended bitter homeowner opposition to intensive development on the site. Homeowners contended that city zoning regulations allowing the development of as many as 189 homes on the property would have clogged already jammed hillside streets with traffic.
The city eventually reduced the number of homes to 115, with homeowner groups holding out for 46. "The 80 homes we agreed to was a compromise," Trattner said. "We also insisted on the donations, as well as other conditions, because of our belief that developers should be required to give something back to the community for the right to make huge profits from their developments."
The property has been the focus of controversy since 1968 when three men, one a former building and safety commissioner, were indicted and pleaded guilty or were convicted of bribery and kickback charges involving the development, then known as the Teamsters Tract. The current owners have no ties to the never-completed Teamster-financed project.
Gottfurcht angered homeowner groups last year when he proposed selling 135 acres of the property to UCLA for the construction of 250 homes and condominiums to ease a chronic shortage of affordable housing for faculty at the university.
UCLA officials abandoned plans to acquire the property when neighboring homeowner groups expressed their opposition to any increase in the number of homes on the property from the 80 approved in the 1982 agreement.
"We needed to be able to build 250 units to make it financially feasible for the university," said Sam Morabito, business enterprises administrator at UCLA. "When it became obvious that we could not build that many units, we no longer had any interest in the property."